The Red Violin and the Cultures It Represents

         I have always loved traveling around the world and experiencing the many different cultures of foreign lands. Since entering college that amount of travel has been severely limited by the lack of time and money. However, movies are still a way to experience the cultures of distant places. With films I can even experience foreign cultures of long ago such as with Christophe Gans’s 2001 Brotherhood of the Wolf and Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashômon. However, I have finally found a film that I rate among my top ten favorites that encompasses many different cultures, countries and eras. The Red Violin, directed by François Girard in 1998. It is a journey that follows this violin as it winds its way through Italy, Austria, France, England and China to modern-day Canada.

         The story starts with the violin’s maker in Italy in the mid-seventeenth century. The story portrays the deep sense of accomplishment that a person who had worked himself up from nothing would have felt in that time. However, he still feels deeply for his wife, which lets you know that he has not forgotten completely the importance of the simple things in life. With the death of the violin maker’s wife, the violin’s journey begins.

         Its first stop is in Austria in the mid-eighteenth century. It has found itself in an orphanage for boys. A young boy by the name of Kaspar with a terrible heart condition has taken to the violin and can play it like a master despite his small size and hands. You can tell the orphanage was not a well-funded one because unlike most children in Austria at the time, Kaspar has not been taught to speak French. This serves as a problem when he is whisked away from the orphanage by a French violin teacher. The man takes him away to live with him and his wife while teaching young Kaspar to be a better violinist. The teacher and his wife are not very wealthy and must sell things to get by. However, they believe in Kaspar’s abilities and the possibility that they could bring them money. Although broke, they scrape together the money for a very nice outfit for the teacher and his pupil so that he can audition to tour with the prince’s private orchestral school. Unfortunately, poor Kaspar’s heart gives out.

         After Casper’s death the violin falls into the hands of gypsies and is passed down through the generations. In the late nineteenth century, it is sold to Frederick Pope, a master violinist in England. Interestingly he is played by Jason Flemyng, who played Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And this interpretation is also seen in his character of Pope. In public he seems to be a proper English gentleman. However, behind closed doors he is a man with a wild spirit and a voracious appetite for his girlfriend, Victoria Byrd, who is herself a wild spirit. She perfectly portrays the free-spirited woman of that era. She is a writer that I believe is loosely based Mary Shelley, who will pick up at any minute to follow the characters of her stories across the countries. Of all the characters in the film, I believe she is the one I most identify with.

         After leaving Mr. Pope’s hands in a rather unconventional way, the violin travels far and wide before finding itself in China. It sits in a pawnshop until it is bought by a wealthy Chinese woman and her young daughter. The violin is not seen again until the young daughter has grown into a woman with a family of her own. The timeframe is the mid 1950s when Mao Zedong had just established the People’s Republic of China and it was beginning to greatly take over the country and the people’s lives. Xiang Pei, the woman, has found herself in a difficult situation. She is a rally leader in the People’s Republic and deeply wants to conform to their ideals so that neither she nor her family is harmed in any way. However, she loves the violin. Her mother was a violinist, and she has passed her skill and love of the music on to her daughter. However, Western music is forbidden. Xiang makes the hard decision to give up the violin to someone she knows will keep it safe. And he does, until his death in modern day.

         That is when the violin finally finds itself on the auction block in Canada. This is where the violin’s many secrets are finally brought to light and you understand the heartache brought from the many owners of the violin and also the passion felt for it.

Stephanie Utley

Table of Contents